Monday, April 15, 2024

If Bonobos Are Aggressive, Does That Deny the "Self-Domestication Hypothesis"?

                                                Vergil, A Male Bonobo at the Cincinnati Zoo

For many years, I taught a course at Northern Illinois University on "Chimpanzee Politics," which included some comparative study of chimpanzees and bonobos, the two primate species most closely related to human beings, because all three species evolved from a common ancestor about 7 million years ago.  

Every time I taught the course, I took the students on a field trip to the Milwaukee County Zoo, which has the largest captive group of bonobos in the world (over 20 individuals).  I have also been to the Cincinnati Zoo, which has about 12 bonobos.  Of course, it would be better to study the social behavior of bonobos in the wild.  But that is hard to do because they are only found in one place in the world--in dense rainforest areas south of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Even those biologists who go there to study them find it hard to observe them as they move through the dense canopy of the rainforest.

Chimpanzees seem to be far more aggressive and violent than are bonobos.  Male chimps attack females and other males.  Sometimes these attacks are lethal.  Male chimps also form coalitions with other males to assert a male dominance hierarchy over females and other males.  These male coalitions also patrol the borders of their community, and they can launch attacks against other communities--even to the point of annihilating the whole community in war.

By contrast, bonobos have never been observed to engage in lethal attacks on other bonobos.  Female bonobos seem to be dominant over males.  And the females form coalitions with one another to attack males and mediate their conflicts.  In contrast to chimps, bonobo communities have never been observed to go to war with one another.  Bonobos from different communities can interact with one another peacefully.  All of this peacemaking depends on mutually pleasurable bisexual lovemaking--rubbing their genitals together--females with other females and with males.  This is why the bonobos have been dubbed the "hippie apes" who "make love not war."

Comparing human beings with these two ape species in working out the evolutionary links between the three species has provoked a debate among evolutionary biologists and social scientists.  The Hobbesian scientists argue that human beings are closer to chimps, which shows that the human state of nature was a state of war.  The Rousseauean scientists argue that human beings are closer to bonobos, which shows that the human state of nature was a state of peace.

In my posts on bonobos and the human state of nature, I have argued that Locke's account of the state of nature is closer to the truth than either Hobbes' or Rousseau's, and that evolved human nature combines the natural propensities of both chimps and bonobos.  As Steven Pinker would say, our human nature has both Inner Demons and Better Angels.  Lockean liberalism constructs a cultural niche of social institutions, mental attitudes, and moral traditions that tame the Inner Demons while eliciting the Better Angels to motivate voluntary cooperation and nonviolent relationships.

But in contrasting bonobos and chimpanzees, we should not assume that bonobos are utterly peaceful.  That bonobos are often aggressive in their attacks on one another is made clear in new research by Maud Mouginot and her colleagues that was just published online on Friday (Mouginot et al. 2024).

The message from this study as reported in the press--as in Carl Zimmer's report for the New York Times--is that "male bonobos commit acts of aggression nearly three times as often as male chimpanzees do."  That would seem to deny the common view that chimps are far more aggressive than bonobos.  But if you read the article carefully, you will see that the story is much more complicated than that.

Mouginot and her colleagues employed what scientists studying animal behavior call the "focal-animal sampling" method (Altman 1974).  All occurrences of specified actions of an individual, or specified group of individuals, are recorded for a pre-determined period of time.  

For their study, they had all-day focal follow data for 14 chimpanzee adult males from two communities in the Gombe National Park in Tanzania and 12 bonobo adult males from three communities in the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  They had recorded hundreds of aggressive dyadic interactions, including contact aggression (physical contact such as hit, pull, bite, kick, or jump-on) and non-contact aggression (such as charge and chase).  They had also recorded whether the focal-male was the aggressor or the victim and whether he was interacting with another male or with a female. 

They wanted to use this data to test the "self-domestication hypothesis" of Brian Hare and Richard Wrangham.  They suggested that bonobos evolved to be less aggressive than chimpanzees just as dogs evolved to be less aggressive than wolves.  Humans selected less aggressive (or friendlier) wolves to become their companions, and over time, wolves evolved into dogs through domestication by human selection.  Similarly, if female bonobos formed coalitions to punish aggressive males, and if females preferred to mate with less aggressive males, which would tend to produce less aggressive offspring, bonobos could have been self-domesticated for being less aggressive or friendlier to one another (Hare, Wobber, and Wrangham 2012).

Moreover, Hare and Wrangham have also suggested that humans could have undergone a similar process of evolution by self-domestication to be less aggressive or friendlier towards individuals within their community (Hare 2017; Hare and Woods 2020; Wrangham 2019).  I have extended this idea of human self-domestication to explain the evolution of Lockean liberalism and the bourgeois virtues as symbolic niche-construction.

What Mouginot and her colleagues have found does not deny the self-domestication hypothesis of Hare and Wrangham, although it might require some refinement in the theory.  They found that there was a higher rate of male-male contact aggression among bonobos than chimpanzees.  And in both species, the more aggressive males had higher mating success.  But they found no evidence to contradict the observation that bonobos never kill other bonobos, while chimpanzees do kill other chimpanzees in fighting both within and between communities.

One possible explanation for why bonobo males engage in more non-lethal aggression with other males than do chimpanzee males is that since bonobo females prevent males from forming coalitions, bonobo males can attack other males without suffering reprisals from male coalitions.

As Hare told Carl Zimmer, the one dramatic difference in aggressiveness between the two species remains:  "Chimpanzees murder, and bonobos don't."


Altman, Jeanne. 1974. "Observational Study of Behavior: Sampling Methods." Behaviour 48: 227-65.

Hare, Brian. 2017. "Survival of the Friendliest: Homo sapiens Evolved via Selection for Prosociality." Annual Review of Psychology 68: 155-86.

Hare, Brian, and Vanessa Woods.  2020.  Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity. New York: Random House.

Hare, Brian, V. Wobber, and Richard Wrangham.  2012.  "The Self-Domestication Hypothesis: Evolution of Bonobo Psychology Is Due to Selection Against Aggression."  Animal Behaviour 83: 573-85.

Wrangham, Richard.  2019.  The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution.  New York: Pantheon Books.

Zimmer, Carl.  2024.  "No 'Hippie Ape':  Bonobos Are Often Aggressive, Study Finds." The New York Times, April 12.

Monday, April 08, 2024

The Natural Desire for Membership in a Society: The Roots of Nationalism in the Lockean Evolutionary State of Nature

I have argued against the claim made by people like Frank Salter and Stephen Sanderson that there is a natural desire for ethnic nationalism that is part of our evolved human nature.  But I do recognize that there is a natural desire for membership in a society, which arose in the evolutionary state of nature of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and that this natural desire for social membership can be satisfied in a multiethnic Lockean liberal nation like the United States.  

Furthermore, I suggest, the national identity of the American people can be best formulated through Abraham Lincoln's understanding of the American people as dedicated to fulfilling the Lockean liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence.  In this way, the identity of the American nation has evolved through the cultural history of Amerca and the individual history of political agents like Lincoln as a symbolic niche construction of Lockean liberalism.

I have found support for these conclusions in Mark Moffett's book The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall (2019), although Moffett would not completely agree with me.


As I indicated in my previous post, Moffett is a field biologist who has wondered whether the capacity of invasive Argentine ants to form massive supercolonies might help to explain the human capacity for living in nations with huge populations of people whose society cannot be based on individual recognition of all the members of the society.  An Argentine ant colony is an anonymous society in which membership is marked by the distinctive scent of the colony, which distinguishes us from them, so that individual ants will be accepted into the colony if they carry the colony's scent, but if they carry the scent of a foreign colony, they will be attacked.  Similarly, a human society is an anonymous society with markers of social membership that distinguish those who belong to the society from those who are outsiders; but for a human society the markers of membership are not chemical signals but shared symbols (such as the flag, the language, or the history of a society).

Here Moffett agrees with Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (first published in 1982), which has become perhaps the most influential book on the origins of nationalism.  Moffett agrees with Anderson's claim that a nation is an "imagined community," and it "is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion" (Anderson 2016: 6).  Moffett observes: "By serving to distinguish us, those who belong, from them, the outsiders, shared imaginings are all we need to create societies that are true and tidy entities" (2019: 18).  

Moffett disagrees, however, with Anderson's claim that nations as imagined communities are artificial products of modern cultural history beginning towards the end of the 18th century.  Our shared imaginings of national identity are not "artificial," if that implies they are fanciful or unreal, because they "bind people with a mental force no less valid and real than the physical force that binds atoms to molecules, turning them into concrete realities."  Moffet also insists that the concept of imagined communities "holds true not just for modern societies, but for all the societies of our ancestors, likely from their remote, prehuman origins," and therefore human societies are rooted in nature--in our evolved human nature.

Actually, Anderson himself sometimes intimates that nations as imagined communities are not modern inventions: "In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined" (6).

In any case, Moffett and Anderson seem to agree that the social identity of human societies or nations arises as a shared mental creation of what John Locke called "mixed modes" and John Searle called "institutional facts."  As I have argued, this confirms Locke's account of how, beginning in the hunter-gatherer state of nature, human beings have created society by social consent.  The first human society was created by informal consent--collective recognition or acceptance--through language, and language itself was a social creation in which certain sounds were given symbolic meaning by a "tacit consent" (ECHU, II.2).  But this first society in the state of nature was not a political society, because there was not yet any consent to a formal government or legal system (First Treatise, pars. 86-93; Second Treatise, pars. 6-14, 25-35, 77-90).  

Although he does not mention Locke or the Lockean tradition of social contract reasoning, Moffett's survey of the evidence and theorizing from the evolutionary social sciences explaining the human capacity for living in anonymous societies supports Locke's reasoning.


Moffett's brief definition of "society" is "an enduring territorial group whose members recognize each other as belonging" (2024, 3).  He also provides a longer definition:

"A society is a group extending beyond an immediate family, capable of perpetuating its population for generations, whose members ordinarily perceive one another as belonging together and set apart from other groups (notwithstanding transfers between societies, either mutually agreeable or initially forced) and which regulates access to a space or spaces it ultimately controls, across which its members travel with relative impunity" (Moffett 2024, 13).

Societies so defined include prehistoric hunter-gatherer and horticultural groups, modern nation states, and some groups in other species.  Thus, beginning in the evolutionary state of nature, human beings have always lived in societies.  And that suggests to me that a natural desire for membership in a society is part of our evolved human nature.

Locke understood that the earliest human ancestors in the state of nature were hunter-gatherers who lived in small nomadic bands and in larger societies of multiple bands that would satisfy Moffett's definition of societies.  Locke learned this from the hundreds of books of travel literature in his library.  Particularly important were the books by European explorers of the New World, because Locke believed that "in the beginning, all the world was America."

In the two hundred years before Locke's death, for the first time in human history, a global network of trade and travel extended to almost every part of the Earth.  In the three hundred years since Locke's death, the European exploration of the many parts of the world where hunter-gatherer societies could be found has been greatly extended--to Australia and New Zealand, for example.  And since the early in the 19th century, the explorers have included scientific researchers--biologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists--so that the scientific study of human social evolution has been deepened.

Moffett's broad examination of this research in support of his general theory of human social life can verify the Lockean explanation of how societies arise by consenting to the symbolic markers of social membership, and how liberal societies arise by consenting to the symbolic principles of a free society.

Ever since the publication in 1962 of Elman Service's Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective, evolutionary archaeologists and anthropologists have assumed a developmental sequence in human social evolution--band, tribe, chiefdom, and state.  Moffett applies his idea of collective markers of social identity to each of these four stages of evolutionary development.

Each hunter-gatherer band consisted of an average 25 to 35 individuals in several unrelated families.  Each band was small enough that the individuals recognized one another from their face-to-face interactions.  But each band belonged to a multiband society consisting of several bands, and this society could have a population ranging up to several thousand individuals.  This multiband society would therefore be an anonymous society with membership based on some markers of social identity rather than individual recognition.  These multiband societies claimed an expanse of territory, and they were hostile to outsiders entering their territory.

Moffett speculates that the first marker of social membership for the earliest hunter-gatherer societies could have been a password--a vocalization distinct to each society, so that anyone uttering this sound could be identified as a member of the society.  Something similar has been identified among chimpanzees:  one of the three dozen or so distinctive calls uttered by chimps is the pant-hoot.  I remember well hearing this the first time I saw Jane Goodall.  It was at a conference in 1986 on "Understanding Chimpanzees" at the Chicago Academy of Sciences.  When Goodall came out on the stage to give her lecture, her first sound was a loud pant-hoot that reverberated throughout the hall.  This evoked more loud pant-hoots from the audience of primatologists who recognized this chimp call.  

The pant-hoot seems to be a group coordination signal that chimps use to assemble and mobilize the members of their community.  There is some evidence, although it is not proven, that they learn the same pant-hoot sound that is shared across a community, with other chimp communities having different sounds (Moffett 2019: 148-50).  This suggests the possibility that the earliest human ancestors living in multiband societies could have developed a vocal sound distinctive to each society by which they could distinguish members of their society as opposed to outsiders.  This could have been the first vocal flag of social identity.  Unfortunately, if this happened, we are not going to find any archaeological evidence for it.

In any case, the ethnographic record of living hunter-gatherer societies shows that they have had many markers of social identity--such as differences in language (different languages or different dialects), bodily appearance (such as tattoos, scarification, clothing, personal ornamentation, and hairstyles), and cultural practices (such as rituals and religious beliefs).

As an illustration of how aboriginal band societies in Australia distinguished insiders from outsiders based on cultural identity, Moffet quotes from anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt recalling a conversation with one aboriginal individual:  "'There are two kinds of blackfellows,' they say, 'we who are the Walbiri and those unfortunate people who are not.  Our laws are the true laws; other blackfellows have inferior laws which they continuously break.  Consequently, anything may be expected of these outsiders.'" (104)

What this person identified as the "laws" of aboriginal society correspond to what Locke called "the laws of nature" in the state of nature--customary norms of proper behavior enforced by the "executive power of the law of nature"--the natural right of every individual to punish those who violate the laws of nature.  And yet in the state of nature, there is no formal government or legal system, so these laws of nature are informal rules of conduct enforced by sanctions of social approval and disapproval.

Notice also that in speaking of "other blackfellows," the Aborigine shows some awareness of racial differences between the black aboriginals and the white Europeans.  But before the arrival of the Europeans, the aboriginals would probably not have seen any racial differences among themselves, and so their membership in different societies would not have been based on race.  If prehistoric hunter-gatherers rarely had any contact with different races, then racial identity would not have been part of their thinking about social membership.

Moffett agrees with Locke that formal governments and laws do not appear until the emergence of states: "We think of nations, which academics call states, as having governments and laws, and band societies have neither, formally speaking" (104).

Locke believed that among hunter-gatherers in the state of nature, "all men by nature are equal."  They were not equal in all respects because some had higher status or influence than others based on age, birth, talents, and social ranking.  But still they were equal in "that equal right that every man hath, to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man" (ST, par. 54).

Moffett seems to agree: "Certainly the dictum that 'all men are created equal' applied to egalitarian, ethnically uniform hunter-gatherer bands more than any society since" (334).  Hunter-gatherer bands displayed what I have called "egalitarian hierarchy"--there were differences of rank, but no one was permitted to tyrannically dominate others.

But even egalitarian hunter-gatherers could think of the foreigners outside of their societies as less than human.  And in rare cases, hunter-gatherers took captives from foreign societies and held them as slaves.

As opposed to multiband societies, tribal societies are clusters of villages that change their locations less often than bands.  Tribes could show even more complex ranking of individuals, with some exercising leadership, but the leaders had no authority to force their will on anyone.  In addition to hunting and gathering their food, tribal people practice horticulture (the domestication of plants in gardens), and some are pastoralists who herd domesticated animals.

Like multiband societies, tribal societies signal their social identity with linguistic and cultural markers that separate one society from another.  So, for example, the Yanomami are an indigenous tribal people (about 30,000 people in 200-250 villages) in the Amazon rainforest along the border between Brazil and Venezuela.   They have diverged into several tribal societies based on differences in their Yanomami languages.

Multiband and tribal societies are small societies (a few thousand individuals at most) that contain mostly the descendants of a homogeneous stock of people.  By contrast, chiefdoms and states are huge heterogeneous combinations of smaller societies that have merged into one.  It is hard to explain how these multiethnic societies merged into one society and how this heterogeneous society developed and maintained shared markers of social identity.

Moffett agrees with those evolutionary archaeologists--like Robert Carneiro (1998; 2017)--who argue that this merging of societies into chiefdoms and states was not voluntary but arose through military conquest.  This might seem to deny Locke's idea of government arising by popular consent.  But Locke understood the importance of military conquest in political history:

"Though Governments can originally have no other Rise than that before mentioned, nor Polities be founded on any thing but the Consent of the People, yet such has been the Disorders Ambition has fill'd the World with, that in the noise of War, which makes so great a part of the History of Mankind, this Consent is little taken notice of: And therefore many have mistaken the force of Arms, for the consent of the People; and reckon Conquest as one of the Originals of Government.  But Conquest is a far from setting up any Government, as demolishing an House is from building a new one in the place.  Indeed it often makes way for a new Frame of a Common-wealth, but destroying the former; but, without the Consent of the people, can never erect a new one" (ST, 175).

Government by conquest without the consent of the people is still in the state of nature, because legitimate government cannot be the product of pure force.  Locke did recognize, however, that the first governments arose as chiefdoms, in which someone with the skills of a war leader could be chosen by the people to lead them in war. Locke had learned this from his reading of people like Gabriel Sagard and Jose de Acosta writing about the social evolution of foraging bands and horticultural tribes in the New World (ST, 74, 94e, 101-112). 

Locke recognized the point that was elaborated some years ago by Carneiro (1998; 2017)--that the chiefdom was the single most important step in social evolution from band and tribal societies in the state of nature to civil societies with formal governmental and legal institutions.  Until ten thousand years ago, all of our human ancestors lived in small bands and tribal villages. The turning point in this evolution was the appearance of the first chiefdom in Mesopotamia around 5,500 BCE.  When the Europeans began exploring the entire globe after 1492, they discovered hundreds or thousands of chiefdoms around the world.  But by the end of the nineteenth century, most chiefdoms had disappeared, and almost all human beings lived in states with large populations.

Carneiro agreed with Locke that chiefdoms originated through war.  Men renown for their military skills become temporary war leaders during time of war, and they could lead an alliance of many villages against their enemies.  But they had no right to command their people once the war was over.  If warfare became prolonged, however, a war leader could become a perpetual ruler over villages merged into one society, which became a chiefdom.

If a chieftain established a formal bureaucracy of government officials and priests to enforce autocratic power, that could become a state.


The centralization of seemingly absolute power in chiefdoms and states would appear to deny Locke's claim that government rests on consent of the people, who will rebel against oppressive government that fails to secure their natural liberty.  But as I have argued, there is plenty of evidence in the history of ancient chiefdoms and states that their propensity to autocracy was checked by popular rebellion and resistance.

Occasionally, Moffett recognizes this:

"Few chiefdoms lasted long.  For one to persist, its chief had to put a stop to insurrections over the long haul.  Like a Big Man, a weak chief had to continue to earn his people's respect, and their faith in him rarely lasted and seldom automatically extended to his children" (2019, 289).

The establishment of autocratic states might seem to set up a state power that could enforce repressive rule.  But even here, as Moffett notes, state societies were prone to collapse and fragmentation.  For example, when a Maya civilization collapsed, there was evidence that the king lost control and the nobility vanished.  Moreover, there is evidence that the "commoners" desecrated the sacred symbolic objects and monuments that had previously given divine sanction to the state (Moffett 2019, 291-301).

In my next post, I will consider whether the social identity of a nation must be closed to outsiders by enforcing the dominance of one racial or ethnic group.  Or whether a multiethnic nation like America can be become "one people" through its dedication to the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence.


Anderson, Benedict.  2016.  Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Carneiro, Robert.  1998.  "What Happened at the Flashpoint?  Conjectures on Chiefdom Formation at the Very Moment of Conception."  In Elsa M. Redmond, ed., Chiefdoms and Chieftancy in the Americas, 18-42.

Carneiro, Robert.  2017.  "The Chiefdom in Evolutionary Perspective."  In Robert Carneiro, Leonid Grinin, and Andrey Korotayev, eds., Chiefdoms Yesterday and Today, 15-59.  Clinton Corners, NY: Eliot Werner Publications.

Moffett, Mark.  2013. "Human Identity and the Evolution of Societies." Human Nature 24: 219-267.

Moffett, Mark.  2019.  The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall.  New York: Basic Books.

Moffett, Mark.  2024.  "What Is a Society?  Building an Interdisciplinary Perspective and Why That's Important."  Behavioral and Brains Sciences, forthcoming.

Friday, March 22, 2024

The Biggest Society on Earth: What Should We Learn from the Argentine Ants--Open Borders, Ethnic Nationalism, or Nothing At All?


Aristotle was right about ants being political animals.  By some standards, the most successful of those political animals are the Argentine ants, because they have become the biggest political society on Earth, as measured both by the global extent of their territory and the number of members in their supercolony.  Trillions of individual Argentine ants belong to one supercolony found on every continent except Antartica (Whitfield 2024). 

                              A Four-Minute Animated Video on the Argentine Ant Supercolony

                       A Twelve-Minute Video on the Argentine Ant as a Dominant Species

One reason for the political success of the Argentine ants is that their colonies are what Mark Moffett (2010; 2012) calls "anonymous societies," in which group members are distinguished from outsiders based on shared cues--chemical signaling through a colony-specific odor--rather than individual recognition.  In contrast to the social insects, almost all nonhuman vertebrates live in "individual recognition societies," which means that the number of members in each society must be small--typically no more than about 150 at most--so that members can recognize one another individually.  Argentine ants and human beings are the only animal species that have naturally evolved with the capacity to organize societies with hundreds of millions or even billions of members (Griffin 2011).

Aristotle was also right in seeing that while human beings live in large, anonymous societies like the ants, human beings are more political than other political animals because human beings have a unique capacity for symbolic thought, so that social membership in human societies is communicated symbolically, rather than communicated chemically as it is for ant societies. If this arose early in human evolution among our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors, then perhaps my list of twenty natural desires should include a natural desire for membership in a symbolically identified anonymous society.

Lockean liberal globalists might say that the lesson we should learn from the Argentine ants is the need for an open borders immigration policy.  But then the nationalist conservatives could say that the real lesson here is that we need ethnic restrictions on immigration to enforce the ethnic nationalism that satisfies our natural desire for ethnic identity.

Or should we rather say that it is foolishly anthropomorphic to draw any moral lessons for human politics from the social life of ants, which commits the naturalistic fallacy in falsely inferring moral values for humans from the natural facts of ant life?


The Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) is native to the lowland areas of the Parana River drainage in northern Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brazil.  They were first identified by Austrian entomologist Gustav Mayr who found them in the area of Buenos Aires in 1866.  Here the Argentine ants wage territorial battles with other ant species.  When they win the battles, they can raid the enemy nest and eat the ant brood.  But in Argentina, their opponents fight well enough to preserve their species from extermination.   It's a different story, however, when the Argentine ants become an invasive species in countries around the world, where they can wipe out most of the native species of ants (Moffett 2010; 2012).

Shipping trade out of Buenos Aires was probably the cause of the introduction of Argentine ants into other regions of the world because they travelled as stowaways on the boats.  They appeared first on Madeira Island (in the Atlantic southwest of Portugal and Spain) in 1882.  They were first recorded in New Orleans in 1891.  Then, around 1907, they were seen in California, around the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles.  They could have arrived in a railway car from the southeastern United States.  They were discovered in New Zealand in 1990 and in Japan in 1992.

There are now four supercolonies of Argentine ants in California.  Within each supercolony, the members are not aggressive towards one another, even when they have never previously encountered one another individually, but they aggressively attack any ants belonging to another supercolony.  In the area around San Diego, the Very Large Colony and the Lake Hodges Colony are constantly at war along their borders.  It is estimated that over thirty million ants die each year along a battlefront that is many miles long.  This might be the largest battlefield on the Earth (Moffett 2010).

As the name indicates, the Very Large Colony is indeed the largest supercolony in California--stretching over 620 miles from the Mexican border to San Francisco with over a trillion members.  In Europe, the largest supercolony extends over 1240 miles from Italy to the Atlantic coast of Spain.

Researchers have collected live Argentine ants from the supercolonies in North America, Europe, Asia, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia.  Worker ants from different supercolonies were randomly selected and put together in pairs to see if they would show aggression towards one another.  They found that workers from the largest dominant supercolonies in these six parts of the world showed no aggression towards one another, but they were aggressive towards ants from the secondary smaller supercolonies.  Thus, the largest Argentine ant supercolonies throughout the world behave as if they are members of one transcontinental megacolony (Sunamura et al. 2009; van Wilgenburg et al. 2010).

With trillions of members on six continents, this global society of Argentine ants is the largest animal society on the Earth, even exceeding some of the largest human societies (such as China and India, each with about 1.4 billion people).

How is this possible?  The primary explanation is that the populations of these ants in this globally distributed supercolony possess similar genetic and chemical profiles, and consequently they treat one another as members of the same colony, while aggressively attacking those ants that belong to other colonies.

The minimal condition for any society is that the individual members must identify themselves as a group by seeing each other as similar and outsiders as different.  To make this distinction between us and them, they must have some shared label or sign of their identity.  For humans, this label of recognition of group identity might be a national flag, a common language, or a shared national history.  For ants, it's the odor of their colony produced by the cuticular hydrocarbon molecules on the exoskeleton of each ant.  Researchers have identified specific chemicals in the cuticular hydrocarbons of Argentine ants that identify those ants who are members of the colony (Brandt et al. 2009).  Ants are cooperative with those ants who have the odor of the colony.  But they aggressively attack those ants who have the unfamiliar odor of a foreign colony.  

An Argentine ant in the San Francisco Bay area who is a member of the Very Large Colony could be transported 600 miles to the Mexican border and dropped into a Very Large Colony nest, and she would treated as a regular member of the colony.  But if she were dropped into the nest of the Lake Hodges Colony around San Diego, she would be killed.

Another reason for the seemingly boundless growth of the Argentine ant colony has to do with its breeding system.  All ants form colonies with one or more egg-laying females (queens) and a large number of sterile females (workers).  The smallest colonies have one queen and a few workers.  But most ant colonies have one or a few queens and tens of thousands of workers.  A few species can have colonies with hundreds of thousands of queens and many millions of workers.  A mature colony rears winged sexual females and males that can fly to mate in midair, often with a few winged males from other colonies; and then each queen drops to the ground to dig a nest and begin brooding sterile workers.  This new colony will have its own distinctive scent, even differing from the queen's birth colony.

Argentine ants are different, however, because their queens never fly away.  The queens move on foot between nest chambers spread throughout the territory of the colony.  They lay eggs within the same colony with the same scent.  A big supercolony of Argentine ants can have millions of queens spread out over a huge territory that continually expands, while remaining the same colony.

Some ant experts--particularly, Deborah Gordon of Stanford University--deny that Argentine ants live in supercolonies: "In fact, there is no functional super-colony of Argentine ants, no single giant colony stretching for miles, much less across the globe" (Gordon 2010).  She argues that a supercolony cannot truly be a single colony because the ants "cannot possibly meet and thus cannot possibly share resources or interact ecologically" (Gordon and Heller 2012).

But I agree with Mark Moffett's argument that as long as the Argentine ants in a supercolony accept one another as members and reject outsiders that satisfies the minimal criterion for being a society (Moffett 2012; 2019: 77).

What--if anything--can the Argentine ants teach us about human societies?  I will take up that question in my next post.


Brandt, Miriam, Ellen van Wilgenburg, Robert Sulc, Kenneth Shea, and Neil Tsutsui.  2009.  "The Scent of Supercolonies: The Discovery, Synthesis, and Behavioural Verification of Ant Colony Recognition Cues."  BMC Biology 7:71.

Gordon, Deborah.  2010.  "Colonial Studies."  Boston Review, September 13.

Gordon, Deborah M., and Nicole E. Heller.  2012.  "Seeing the Forest and the Trees."  Behavioral Ecology 23:934.

Griffin, Nicholas.  2011.  "Before the Swarm."  The Atavist, March.

Moffett, Mark.  2010.  Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Moffett, Mark.  2012.  "Supercolonies of Billions in an Invasive Ant: What Is a Society?"  Behavioral Ecology 23: 925-933.

Moffett, Mark.  2019.  The Human Swarm:  How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall.  New York: Basic Books.

Sunamura, E., X. Espadaler, H. Sakamoto, S. Suzuki, M. Terayama, and S. Tatsuki.  2009.  "Intercontinental Union of Argentine Ants:  Behavioral Relationships Among Introduced Populations in Europe, North America, and Asia." Insectes Sociaux  56: 143-147.

Whitfield, John.  2024.  "Ant Geopolitics."  Aeon, February 16.

van Wilgenburg, Ellen, Candice W. Torres, and Neil D. Tsutsui.  2010.  "The Global Expansion of a Single Ant Supercolony."  Evolutionary Applications 3: 136-143.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Frans de Waal, 1948-2024: Primatologist of Darwistotelian Natural Right

Frans de Waal died on March 14th at the age of 75.  He was one of the most influential and popular biologists of the last 50 years.  He published 13 books devoted mostly to the biological study of animal behavior, and particularly apes and other primates, including human beings.  His most important contribution was in showing how human morality and politics could be understood as rooted in emotional and cognitive capacities shared with other animals.

Over the years, I have written as many as eight long posts on de Waal's work that show his deep influence on my thinking.  He sometimes responded to these posts with email messages.

To a large degree, everything he wrote was an elaboration of the insights that can be found in some form in his first book--Chimpanzee Politics (1982).  I used that book many times as a text in my courses at Northern Illinois University--particularly, the courses on "Chimpanzee Politics" and "Biopolitics and Human Nature."  Every time I used that book, it sparked lively class discussions; and I and my students always learned something new.

I was fortunate enough to meet and talk with him at least a half dozen times--including a summer workshop at Dartmouth College in 1996, a conference on Edward Westermarck in Helsinki, Finland, in 1998, and a meeting in 1999 in Atlanta at the convention of the American Political Science Association, where he was a commentator on a panel devoted to my book Darwinian Natural Right.  He was generous in supporting my intellectual career.

I was pleased when I saw that he had found my arguments for "Darwinian natural right" largely persuasive.  In his published writing, he showed that most clearly in his 2001 book The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist, where he noted that for me "Darwin and Aristotle have begun to blend into a single person, perhaps to be called Darwistotle" (81).  He then went on to endorse my "Darwistotelian natural right" by saying that Aristotle and Darwin were indeed part of a common intellectual tradition of people who recognized the biological roots of morality in the natural inclinations and desires of human nature as shaped by an evolutionary process shared with other primates.  Like me, he saw this intellectual tradition set against the Kantian tradition of asserting that morality must be based on imperatives of pure reason transcending natural emotions and desires (349-53, 359-63).

I will remember Frans.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

After Joy's Death: How C. S. Lewis Lost His Faith in the Rational Defense of Christianity


                                         Joy and Jack Lewis in Oxford at Their Home ("the Kilns")

                                          Joy Davidman at a Younger Age in New York City

After writing a series of posts on C. S. Lewis a month ago, I thought I had said enough about him for now.  But one unanswered question about him has continued to bang around my brain.  

William Nicholson raised the question in Shadowlands--his 1985 television screenplay, 1989 stage play, and 1993 screenplay for the motion picture (with Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy Gresham).  Based on his careful reading of Lewis's writings, Nicholson tells the love story of Lewis and Gresham and Lewis's suffering when she dies from cancer after only three years of joyful marriage.

Nicholson's play has two acts (Nicholson 1991).  Act One begins with Lewis lecturing to a popular audience and asking: "If God loves us, why does He allow us to suffer so much?"  Lewis's answer is that God uses suffering to teach us that we need God--that we need God to save us from life in this world so that we can enter another world after death where we can live our "real life."  

In a subtle way, Nicholson's play leads us to wonder whether Lewis's personal experience with the pain of suffering Joy's death forced him to doubt this faith in God's goodness and love for human beings.  My hesitant conclusion is that in his grief, Lewis wavered in his Christian faith, but he did not lose it, although he did lose his faith that Christianity could be rationally defended as supported by evidence.  In other words, Lewis resolved that he would believe that God is good, and that eternal bliss is achieved in another world after death, even though all the evidence from his suffering contradicted this belief.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote:  "I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it" (123).  After the death of Joy, Lewis changed his mind, because then he asked us to accept Christianity by faith even when the weight of the evidence is against it.  If I am right about this, then after a long life of trying to engage in the Reason/Revelation debate (particularly, in the Oxford Socratic Club), Lewis decided that such debate was impossible, because there is no common ground ("the weight of the evidence") on which rational debate could be conducted.

In the lecture at the beginning of Act One, Lewis asserts that while "God doesn't necessarily want us to be happy," "He wants us to be lovable."  And to make us lovable, God must use suffering to break through our selfishness.

"God creates us free, free to be selfish, but He adds a mechanism that will penetrate our selfishness and wake us up to the presence of others in the world, and that mechanism is suffering.  To put it another way, pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world.  Why must it be pain?  Why can't He wake us more gently, with violins or laughter?  Because the dream from which we must be awakened is the dream that all is well."

"Now that is the most dangerous illusion of them all.  Self-sufficient is the enemy of salvation.  If you are self-sufficient, you have no need of God.  If you have no need of God, you do not seek Him.  If you do not seek Him, you will not find Him."

"God loves us, so He makes us the gift of suffering.  Through suffering, we release our hold on the toys of this world, and know our true good lies in another world."

"We're like blocks of stone, out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men.  The blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect.  The suffering in the world is not the failure of God's love for us; it is that love in action."

"For believe me, this world that seems to us so substantial is no more than the shadowlands.  Real life has not begun yet" (2-3).

In Act One, Nicholson tells the story of Jack and Joy becoming friends.  Joy had been a Jewish communist atheist in New York City who converted to Christianity, and who had been deeply influenced by reading Lewis's writings.  She was forced to divorce her husband because of his sexual affairs with other women and his drinking.  She moved to London, became a good friend of Lewis's, and then moved to Oxford to be close to Lewis.  When she discovered that her visa for staying in England would not be renewed, Lewis agreed to marry her so that she could have British citizenship.  They agreed that this was not a "real" marriage, but only a way to continue their friendship.  But the audience for the play and the movie can tell that they have fallen deeply into romantic love, although neither one will acknowledge this.

But then at the end of Act One, Joy is walking in her home and falls to the floor.  A bone in her leg has broken because she has a cancer that has spread into her skeleton.  Doctors will tell her that her cancer will probably kill her in a short time.

Act Two begins with Lewis delivering another popular lecture on suffering and the goodness of God that closely resembles the lecture at the beginning of Act One.  But Lewis starts this second lecture by reflecting on Joy's suffering:

"Recently, a friend of mine, a brave and Christian woman, collapsed in terrible pain.  One minute she seemed fit and well.  The next minute she was in agony.  She is now in the hospital, suffering from advanced bone cancer, and almost certainly dying.  Why?"

"I find it hard to believe that God loves her.  If you love someone, you don't want them to suffer.  You can't bear it.  You want to take their suffering onto yourself.  If even I feel that, why doesn't God?  Not just once in history, on the cross, but again and again?  Today.  Now."

He then goes on to make the same argument he had made in the first lecture about how God uses suffering to teach us that "our true good lies in another world."  But Nicholson has this note at the beginning of Act Two for whoever plays the part of Lewis: "As the talk proceeds, there are signs that he is using it to persuade himself of a belief that is beginning to slide.  However, at this stage, he hardly realizes this process himself" (59).

Through the rest of Act Two, we see the ever deeper crisis of faith for Lewis.  Lewis and a friend of his who is an Anglican priest pray that God will intervene to give Joy a miraculous recovery.  And indeed her cancer does go into remission, and her doctors say it looks like a miracle.  But Lewis tells Joy that "Miracles frighten me," because "I'm frightened of loving God too much for giving you back to me.  That way, I could just as easily hate God, later" (81).

After two years of delightful life together, the cancerous growth returns, and Joy dies.  Lewis is thrown into the deepest grief and he tells his friends that his faith makes no sense of what has happened.  He tells his brother Warnie: "I'm so terribly afraid.  Of never seeing her again.  Of thinking that suffering is just suffering after all.  No cause.  No purpose.  No pattern.  No sense.  Just pain, in a world of pain" (97).

As she was dying, Joy had worried about Jack's grief.  She told him: "What I'm trying to say is that pain, then, is part of this happiness, now.  That's the deal" (90).

Lewis repeats this thought from Joy in the last words of the play, when he says: "I find I can live with the pain, after all.  The pain, now, is part of the happiness, then.  That's the deal.  Only shadows, Joy" (100).

The movie differs in two ways.  In the play, Lewis is imagining himself speaking to Joy.  In the movie, he is speaking to Douglas, his stepson.  And in the movie, Lewis ends with "That's the deal."

By dropping the sentence "Only shadows, Joy," Nicholson might be implying that Lewis is wavering in his belief that this life is only "shadows" of the "real life" after death in another world.  That "the pain, now, is part of the happiness, then" is "the deal" in this life, and there's no promise of another life.

In any case, Lewis seems to have concluded that the Christian faith in the good and loving God cannot be defended rationally based on evidence.

Shortly before he moved to Cambridge University in 1954, Lewis read his last paper to the Oxford Socratic Club on April 30, 1953 (Hooper 1979: 170-172).  The paper was called "Faith and Evidence," and Professor H. H. Price, the Professor of Logic at Oxford who was an agnostic, responded to the paper.  Lewis's paper was later published under the title "On Obstinacy in Belief" (Lewis 2017).

Lewis began by noting that in some of the papers read to the Oxford Socratic Club, people contrasted the Christian attitude of believing without evidence or despite the evidence against it and the scientific attitude of proportioning the strength of one's belief to the evidence and withdrawing belief for which there is insufficient evidence.  If this were true, Lewis observed, these two groups of people would have nothing to say to one another, and neither side could comprehend the other.

But in fact, Lewis argued, this contrast is not true.  Usually, even when there is some evidence that appears to contradict Christian beliefs, there is also some favorable evidence.  Some of the favorable evidence is "in the form of external events: as when I go to see a man, moved by what I felt to be a whim, and find he has been praying that I should come to him that day" (2017, 25).  Therefore, answered prayer is an example of evidence favoring Christianity, even though it is not absolutely conclusive empirical proof.

In his essay on "The Efficacy of Prayer," Lewis referred to the miraculous recovery of Joy in answer to prayer as an example of this.  

"I have stood by the bedside of a woman whose thighbone was eaten through with cancer and who had thriving colonies of the disease in many other bones as well.  It took three people to move her in bed.  The doctors predicted a few months of life; the nurses (who often know better), a few weeks.  A good man laid his hands on her and prayed.  A year later the patient was walking (uphill, too, through rough woodland) and the man who took the last X-ray photos was saying, 'These bones are as solid as rock.  It's miraculous" (2017: 2).

But, a few years after this essay was first published, and after Joy's death, Lewis wrote this in A Grief Observed, his notebook of his thoughts about grieving for her death:

"Sooner or later I must face the question in plain language.  What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, 'good'?  Doesn't all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite?  What have we to set against it?"

. . .

"What chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers H. [Joy] and I offered and all the false hopes we had.  Not hopes raised merely by our own wishful thinking; hopes encouraged, even forced upon, by false diagnoses, by X-ray photographs, by strange remissions, by one temporary recovery that might have ranked as a miracle.  Step by step we were 'led up the garden path.'  Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture."

"I wrote that last night.  It was a yell rather than a thought.  Let me try it over again.  Is it rational to believe in a bad God?  Anyway, in a God so bad as all that?  The Cosmic Sadist, the spiteful imbecile?" (42-43)

One sees here that while Lewis did not doubt God's existence, he did doubt His goodness, because all evidence was against it and in favor of God as the Cosmic Sadist.  So, in A Grief Observed, he wrote:  "Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God.  The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.  The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like.  Deceive yourself no longer.'" (18-19).

But then in the last lines of A Grief Observed, Lewis indicated that God's goodness would be vindicated by Joy's mystical union with God in Heaven:  "How wicked it would be, if we would, to call the dead back!  She said not to me but to the chaplain, 'I am at peace with God.'  She smiled, but not at me.  Poi si torno all' eterna fontana" (89).  The last line is from Canto 31 of Dante's Paradiso, where Dante described Beatrice looking at him for the last time in Paradise:  "So I prayed; and as distant as she was, she smiled and gazed at me.  Then she turned back to the Eternal Fountain."

But notice that Lewis must rely on Dante's poetic invention without offering any evidence supporting the belief in Joy's eternal bliss.

In some of her last words to Lewis, Joy professed to believe this, but she suggested a lack of confidence: "Only shadows, Jack.  That's what you're always saying.  Real life hasn't begun yet.  You'd just better be right" (91).

Joy and Jack believed this as a matter of blind faith even though the weight of the evidence was against it.  They had lost their faith in the rational defense of Christianity.


Hooper, Walter.  1979.  "Oxford's Bonny Fighter."  In James T. Como, ed., C. S. Lewis a the Breakfast Table, and Other Reminiscences, 137-185.  New York: Macmillan.

Lewis, C. S.  1952.  Mere Christianity.  New York: Macmillan.

Lewis, C. S.  1989.  A Grief Observed.  New York: HarperCollins.

Lewis, C. S.  2017.  The World's Last Night, and Other Essays.  New York: HarperOne.

Nicholson, William.  1991.  Shadowlands.  New York: Penguin. 

Monday, March 04, 2024

The Supreme Court Rejects the Original Meaning of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment in the Trump Disqualification Case

 I have argued that under the original meaning of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, Donald Trump is disqualified from holding any public office in the United States.  Consequently, I agreed with the ruling of the Colorado Supreme Court that Trump was disqualified from running for the presidency.  But still I have suggested that the Congress should debate the possibility of granting Trump amnesty.

I have also said that this illustrates the evolutionary psychology of constitutional law: human beings have an evolved mental capacity for symbolism that allows them to create the moral idea of someone having the authority of a president as prescribed by the language of a constitution.

Today, the Supreme Court released its opinion in Trump v. Anderson overturning the Colorado Supreme Court decision.  Remarkably, the Justices were unanimous in concluding that state governments and state courts do not have the power to enforce Section 3 against federal officeholders and candidates.  They give two reasons for this.  First, they are unanimous in saying that allowing the states to enforce Section 3 would create "a chaotic state-by-state patchwork" of standards for applying Section 3.  Second, five of the Justices believe that enforcement of Section 3 requires congressional enforcement under Section 5 of the 14th Amendment.  

This is a bad decision because both of these reasons violate the original meaning of Section 3.  Thus, we see here a clear case in which the originalist Justices on the Court have departed from the original meaning of the Constitution.

The worry about a chaotic patchwork of state court decisions makes no sense.  Clearly, state courts have the power to interpret the U. S. Constitution as applied to the cases that come before them.  When the state courts disagree in their interpretations, then one of the primary functions of the United States Supreme Court is to resolve these disagreements by declaring a uniform interpretation.   So, in this case, the U.S. Supreme Court needed to formulate uniform standards for interpreting Section 3 as applied to Trump. There is nothing in the 14th Amendment that denies the power of state courts to interpret that amendment subject to review by the Supreme Court.

Moreover, the Constitution clearly grants to state governments and state courts the power to judge the constitutional qualifications of candidates for federal office--for example, the requirements that the president must be at least 35 years old and a "natural born" citizen of the United States.  In a 2012 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, Neil Gorsuch upheld a Colorado state official's decision to bar from the ballot a presidential candidate who was not a natural born citizen.  The Colorado Supreme Court decision in December cited this opinion by Gorsuch.  But now that Gorsuch is on the U.S. Supreme Court, he is contradicting this earlier decision without any explanation for why he is doing this.

Nothing in the 14th Amendment limits the pre-existing power of state courts and ultimately the Supreme Court to adjudicate a presidential qualifications dispute before the election.  The majority in this case, however, claim that Section 5 of the 14th Amendment means that Section 3 cannot be enforced by the courts without congressional legislation.

Section 5 reads "The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article."  Notice that this says "power" and not "the power."  Nor does it say "exclusive power" or "sole power."  Elsewhere, the Constitution does speak of "the sole Power" (Art. 1, sec. 2, cl. 5, and sec. 3, cl. 6) and "exclusive Legislation" (Art. I, sec. 8, cl. 17).

In Art. I, sec. 10, "No State shall" is used for more than 15 prohibitions.  This phrase "No State shall" also appears in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment.  But this does not appear in Section 5 of the 14th Amendment.

Furthermore, it has been generally understood in many Supreme Court opinions that state courts and state governments can enforce the provisions of the 14th Amendment even without any congressional enforcement legislation under Section 5.  Otherwise, as the Colorado Supreme Court observed, Congress could nullify the 14th Amendment by not passing enacting legislation.  Why should Section 3 be any different?  Today's decision does not even ask that question much less answer it.

Today's decision also makes a deceptive argument about the "lack of historical precedent" for the "state enforcement of Section 3 against federal officeholders or candidates in the years following ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment" (p. 9 of the Per Curiam decision).  In a footnote, they admit: "We are aware of just one example of state enforcement against a would-be federal officer.  In 1868, the Governor of Georgia refused to commission John Christy, who had won the most votes in a congressional election, because--in the Governor's view--Section 3 made Christy ineligible to serve.  But the Governor's determination was not final; a committee of the House reviewed Christy's qualifications itself and recommended that he not be seated.  The full House never acted on the matter, and Christy was never seated."

The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has published a good chart of all the cases of "Public Officials Adjudicated to be Disqualified under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment."  There are only eight individuals on this list, which includes John Christy.  And, indeed, Christy is the only example of a state enforcement of the Section 3 disqualification against a candidate for federal office.

But the Supreme Court Justices are silent about the obvious explanation for why this list is so short.  There are two reasons for this.  First, it was so well understood that former Confederates who had taken an oath to support the Constitution before the Civil War were disqualified from holding public office under Section 3 that they either did not seek office, or they petitioned for amnesty.  In fact, thousands of former Confederates petitioned the House Select Committee on Reconstruction of the 40th and 41st Congresses (1867-1871) asking that Congress remove their Section 3 disqualification.

The second reason for why the list is so short is that the Section 3 disqualification for most former Confederates was in effect for less than four years.  The 14th Amendment was ratified on July 9, 1868; and Congress passed the Amnesty Act on May 22, 1872, which granted amnesty to most of the ex-Confederates.

The Supreme Court says nothing about this history, which shows clearly that everyone understood the original meaning of Section 3 that anyone who had violated his oath to support the Constitution by engaging in insurrection was disqualified from public office at the federal or state level.

So, it's clear that in order to rule in Trump's favor, the originalists on the Supreme Court had to disregard the original meaning of the 14th Amendment.  Of course, the five originalists (Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett, and Alito) had to do this to win the votes of the four Justices who are not originalists (Roberts, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Jackson).

Here's what the Court should have done.  They should have upheld the Colorado Supreme Court's decision that as an insurrectionist who violated his oath of office to support the Constitution, Trump is disqualified for public office under Section 3.  But they should also have noted that deciding whether disqualifying Trump would be good for the country is a political question rather than a judicial question; and if two-thirds of each House of Congress want to grant amnesty to Trump, they can do that under Section 3.

Actually, the Congress has already passed a general amnesty law--the Amnesty Act of 1872--that could be interpreted as suspending Section 3 after 1872:

"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled (two-thirds of each house concurring therein), that all political disabilities imposed by the third section of the fourteenth article of amendments of the Constitution of the United States are hereby removed from all persons whomsoever, except Senators and Representatives of the thirty-sixth and thirty-seventh Congresses, officers in the judicial, military, and naval service of the United States, heads of departments, and foreign ministers of the United States."

The language here--"all persons whomsoever, except . . ."--would seem to have set aside Section 3 from all future application after 1872.  But I remain undecided about this. 

ADDENDUM:  March 19, 2024

Yesterday, the U. S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of Couy Griffin, who had been declared disqualified to hold state office in New Mexica because of his participation in the January 6th insurrection, which was held to have disqualified him from public office under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment.  Although the Court did not explain its reasoning, as is common in the denial of certiorari, this refusal to hear Griffin's appeal underscores the fact that the Court's decision in Trump v. Anderson did not make Section 3 totally ineffective.  Even though the Court held that the Colorado Supreme Court did not have the authority to disqualify Trump for future public office under Section 3, they made it clear that "States may disqualify persons holding or attempting to hold state office."  Thus, Griffin becomes the only U.S. elected official that has been barred from holding public office because of his participation in the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

                                      Couy Griffin with ex-President Trump in the White House

Griffin is a Republican who was elected a county commissioner in Otero County, New Mexico, in 2018.  The founder of "Cowboys for Trump," Griffin was convicted in a U.S. District Court for his participation in the January 6 insurrection.  Then, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a case on behalf of three New Mexico residents charging that under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, he was disqualified from any serving in any public office.  CREW is the same advocacy group that brought the Colorado lawsuit to disqualify Trump.

In 2022, a state district court in New Mexico found that the January 6 attack was an insurrection under Article 3, and that Griffin aided that insurrection, so that he should be disqualified from public office.

So now, the Supreme Court has made it clear that states have a duty under the Insurrection Clause to disqualify from state office anyone who broke their oath to support the Constitution by participating in the January 6 insurrection.

But isn't it strange that the Supreme Court says that states do not have a similar authority to disqualify an insurrectionist former president from federal office?

Sunday, March 03, 2024

Fabienne Picard Responds to "Religious Experience in the Brain"

Dr. Fabienne Picard has sent me a message in response to my posts on the neurology of ecstatic epilepsy and religious experience.  She has given me permission to publish that message here.

Dr. Picard is an Associate Professor at the Medical School of Geneva, and she is a Senior Attending Physician in the Epilepsy Unit at the Department of Neurology, University Hospitals of Geneva, Switzerland.

Here is her statement.

I am happy you were interested in ecstatic epilepsy, but there are a few misunderstandings.

I totally agree that ecstatic epilepsy is not the only way to have spiritual/ecstatic/mystical/religious experiences.  I agree they are possible also through the normal functioning of the brain, for instance, in response to religious/meditation practices (probably through the letting go of all the system of predictions and anticipations forming the predictive coding system).

I have talked a lot with Buddhist experts who experienced the same ecstatic phenomena through meditation and a body scan session, so a functional alteration of brain functioning achieving the same state of clarity/revelation may occur.

There are people with ecstatic epilepsy reporting religious experiences.  I have not published all the cases I have collected up to now.  In my opinion, each person interprets the state in his way according to previous religious or non-religious beliefs/context.  Some people with ecstatic epilepsy told me that "if I was religious, I would have believed it was a meeting with God . . ."

Because of the ineffability, people try to find a way to describe it in a sense such that other people could have a vague idea of it, maybe they "embellish" with images or interpret with their beliefs.  Maybe the "light" descried by St. Paul was an image of the clarity he experienced, because there are no words to express the sudden mental clarity.  For St. Paul, we do not have descriptions of convulsive seizures (contrary to Dostoevsky, St. Theresa of Avila, Ramana Maharshi, Akbar, emperor of the Mughal Empire); so, I cannot affirm St. Paul had ecstatic epilepsy, but it remains a possibility.

The fact that all patients stimulated within the dorsal anterior insula did not experience an ecstatic phenomenon does not remove any credibility to what we found.  For primary cortices such as the primary motor cortex, each stimulation (in roughly the same region) in any patient gives rise to a movement.  Such complex cognitive states are not so easy to induce, probably some individuals are more prone to them, even when related to meditation or prayers or to the use of psychedelics (only 15-20% of people have mystical experience under psilocybin, so there should be some predisposition to have it or not).

Even for other symptoms, such as deja vu, the stimulation of the entorhinal cortex does give rise to these symptoms only in a certain percentage of people.  The important thing is that only the stimulation of the anterior insula gives rise to such experience, and not all the stimulations by other electrodes in other parts of the brain (in the 6 or 7 patients now with ecstatic epilepsy and the one without ecstatic epilepsy).

Regarding the descriptions of the 52 patients with ecstatic seizures, sometimes the descriptions lacked details (I really took time to let them describe more and more in detail), but the neurologists probably understood it was amazing for the patient.  My first patients, before taking time and explaining to me which extraordinary feelings they felt, only explained to the previous physicians that they had a warmth in the body or lightness rising in the head or like bubbles rising in the head . . . ! 

Friday, March 01, 2024

Religious Experience in the Brain: Saint Paul's Mystical Visions

                 Michelangelo's "Conversion of Saint Paul," a Fresco in the Sistine Chapel

In my previous post, I might have conveyed the impression that religious experience can be fully explained by ecstatic epilepsy triggered in the anterior insula.  If I did, that's a mistake that I need to correct.  I should have been more emphatic about the disclaimer that I put near the end of the post: "Of course, this does not mean that ecstatic epilepsy is the only source in the brain for religious experience.  There are other ways in which the brain might facilitate human access to the divine (Nelson 2011; Newberg 2018)."  I can illustrate this point by considering the neurobiology of Saint Paul's ecstatic mysticism.

In his classic study of Paul's mysticism--The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1931)--Albert Schweitzer briefly mentioned the possibility that Paul's mystical visions could have come from seizures.  Since then, others have suggested that Paul's visions were caused by ecstatic epileptic seizures.  And, as I indicated in my previous post, Fabrienne Picard has identified the anterior insula as the primary brain structure for the sort of ecstatic seizures experienced by Paul.  But in her book on the neurobiology of Paul's ecstatic experiences, Colleen Shantz concluded that "the suggestion that Paul's visions were caused by epileptic seizures should be laid aside or, at the very least, bracketed as an insufficient explanation" (2009: 151).

Although there are a few cases--such as Dostoevsky--where ecstatic epilepsy seems to be crucial for religious experience, these cases are so rare that they cannot explain most religious experience.  Epilepsy itself affects only a small minority (between 4 and 10 per 1,000) of every human population.  And among those with temporal lobe epilepsy, less than 5% have ecstatic experiences.

The rarity of ecstatic epilepsy is evident in the work of Picard.  In one review article, she surveyed a total of 55 individuals who have had ecstatic seizures, based on reports from 1951 to 2015 (Gschwind and Picard 2016).  As I noted in my previous post, Picard's most dramatic evidence for her "anterior insula hypothesis" comes from his treatment of epileptic patients in Geneva, Switzerland.  In treating one patient with ecstatic epilepsy, she found that he could induce ecstatic auras by the electrical stimulation of her anterior insula.  Even more amazing, she found that he could induce ecstatic auras by the electrical stimulation of the anterior in one patient with temporal lobe epilepsy who had never had ecstatic experiences previously.  But then, after reporting these cases, she made a remarkable admission:  "It must be specified that the induction of an ecstatic aura through the stimulation of the dorsal part of the anterior insula is not the rule, as there are many patients in whom stimulations of this region did not give rise to ecstatic experience" (Picard 2023: 1375).  Shouldn't this failure to replicate her findings count as a falsification of her hypothesis?


Picard could support her hypothesis if she could show that people with ecstatic epileptic seizures have religious experiences like those of Paul's mystical visions as reported in the New Testament.  But she fails to do that.

Acts 9:3-9 describes the famous conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus.  Paul had been persecuting the Christians, and he was traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus where he planned to take some Christians as prisoners.  But then he had an amazing experience of conversion:

"As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from Heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?'  'Who are you, Lord?' Saul asked.  'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' he replied.  'Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.'  The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.  Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes, he could see nothing.  So, they led him by the hand into Damascus.  For three days, he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything."

In Damascus, a disciple named Ananias had a vision in which the Lord told him that he was to meet Paul, restore his vision, and tell him that he had been chosen to proclaim Jesus to the Gentiles and the Jews.

Later, Paul said he should be considered an apostle of Christ because he had seen and talked with Christ like the original apostles.  Writing to the Corinthian Christians, he even described his experience in ascending into Heaven:

"I must go on boasting.  Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.  I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.  Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know--God knows.  And I know that this man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows--was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell" (1 Cor. 12:1-4).

Here Paul might have shown the influence of some Jewish mystical traditions.  Some Jewish texts identified "paradise" as the restoration of Eden in Heaven that might be established in the renewed Earth.  There was disagreement about the number of heavens, but the most common view identified three or seven heavens.  The "third heaven" was probably the highest heaven, where God was.

So, if Picard were right about the anterior insula being the prime locus for religious experiences like this, we would predict that people having ecstatic epileptic seizures in the anterior insula would report visions and revelations similar to what Paul reported.  But when we examine the 52 cases of ecstatic seizures surveyed by Gschwind and Picard, and look at the signs of ecstatic experience, we see very little resemblance to what Paul reported (Gschwind and Picard 2016: 4-9).  We see a lot of vague descriptions of a euphoric state such as "sensation of joy," "pleasant butterfly in stomach," "sudden feeling of happiness," "calm euphoria," "feeling union with the whole world," "feeling like orgasm," and "intense feelings of bliss and well-being."  But in these 52 cases, there is only one reference to "heaven," one reference to "paradise," three references to "God," and no references at all to Jesus Christ.  This hardly looks anything like Paul's mystical experiences.


If there is any neurobiological explanation for religious experiences like those of Paul, it must be more complex than simply identifying the posterior insula as the prime mover.  That more complex neurobiological model has been emerging in the research surveyed by people like Shantz (2009) and Andrew Newberg (2018).  In contrast to Picard's attempt to explain religious experience as caused by a brain disorder--temporal lobe epilepsy--Shantz and Newberg see religious experience as made possible by the normal functioning of the brain in response to religious practices that alter the brain.

There have now been over one hundred neuroimaging and physiological studies of people engaged in religious activities such as rituals, meditation, prayer, and speaking in tongues (glossolalia), which work on the autonomic nervous system to induce the altered states of consciousness that constitute ecstatic religious experiences.  This can work on the sympathetic nervous system (the arousal system) to induce states of hyperarousal and ultimately a feeling of ecstasy.  Or this can work on the parasympathetic system (the quiescent system) to induce states of hyperquiescence and ultimately a sense of bliss.

                                         A Ten-Minute Video on the Autonomic Nervous System

For example, Newberg and his colleagues have led neuroimaging studies of a group of Franciscan nuns engaging in the spiritual practice of centering prayer (Newberg 2018: 214-19).  Centering prayer requires that one concentrate one's attention on a particular prayer or phrase from the Bible and meditate on its meaning with one's eyes closed for a prolonged period--from twenty minutes to several hours.  Over time, the spiritual state of the person deepens until they feel open to God's presence.

Although the technique of centering prayer was first developed by some Trappist monks in the 1970s, it draws from the tradition of contemplative prayer that stretches back to the early days of Christian monasticism.

Newberg and his colleagues have found that centering prayer begins with increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, particularly in the right hemisphere, and in the anterior cingulate gyrus, which are involved in focusing attention.  The prefrontal cortex must then activate the thalamus, which can block sensory information getting into the parietal lobe, so that fewer distracting outside stimuli arrive in the visual cortex and parietal lobe.  A primary function of the parietal lobe is to gather all the sensory information we receive and use it to give us a spatial representation of our body in the world.  So that blocking sensory information from entering the parietal lobe can blur the boundaries between self and world, and we can feel a sense of oneness with everything in the universe, which could explain the experience of the nuns feeling intimately connected to God in their centering prayer.  Centering prayer is also associated with important structures in the limbic system such as the amygdala that are involved in intense emotions.


This doesn't explain much about the specific content of Paul's ecstatic visions.  But as Shantz argues, a neurobiological reading of 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 can illuminate two of the puzzling features of Paul's ecstatic experience--his confusion about the location of his body and his inability to speak about what he heard in heaven (Shantz 2009: 93-109).  Paul said that when he ascended into Heaven, he did not know whether he was "in the body or apart from the body."  And he "heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell."  Why was Paul so bewildered about his body?  And why was he so confused about how to describe his experience?

To answer the first question, as Shantz suggests, we can begin by considering how our normal experience of our body depends on the representation of our body in our brain.  Our brain carries a neural map of our body--sometimes called the homunculus map--composed of two maps:  a set of sensory correlates on our parietal lobes and a set of motor correlates on our frontal lobes.  Amazingly, these bodily coordinates are mapped out on our brains from our toes to our tongue.  This neural mapping of the body is connected with the somaesthetic association area in the parietal lobes, with the right parietal lobe being predominantly in control.

                                                                   The Homunculus Map

The normal functioning of this somatosensory representation of the body in the brain gives us our subjective sense of our embodiment and the orientation of our body in space.  But as I have noted in some previous posts, damage to the right cerebral hemisphere (such as from stroke) can produce a loss of body identity, such as in somatoparaphrenia, when people feel that their left leg or arm is not really theirs.  

Shantz suggests that Paul's ecstatic experience of trance put him into an altered state of consciousness that was "somewhere between" the "healthy and impaired functioning" of the brain's somatosensory experience of bodily identity (98).  Although she does not cite any specific neurobiological studies of ecstatic experiences to support this idea, she speculates that Paul's religious mind could have altered (through prayer or other religious activities?) the functioning of his brain so that, on the one hand, the bodily sensations from his body and from his somatosensory cortex were blocked from consciousness, but, on the other hand, the neural impulses from the orientation association area were intensified.

This then leads Shantz into her explanation of Paul's experience in ascending into Heaven:

". . . The human mind is left to interpret this strange combination of neurological silence and noise in an intelligible way.  Thus, the body is perceived as present, but its sensations--its weight, boundaries, pain, or voluntary motion--are all absent from consciousness.  In an attempt to interpret these phenomena as coherently as possible, ecstatics frequently report the sensation of floating or flying without physical boundaries between themselves and the people and objects in their awareness.  Not surprisingly, descriptions of ascent are also common in interpretations of ecstatic experiences.  Paul's ascent is among them.  Like other ecstatic thinkers, Paul genuinely could not know the status of his body by using the sensate signals that would normally inform him.  The question of whether he was in the body or outside it is not simply a rhetorical means of dismissing the issue; it is rather an account of one of the phenomena of trance" (98).

This is a speculative explanation.  But if we assume that for every mental experience there must be some neural correlates in the brain, then, as an extrapolation from what we know about the normal and abnormal functioning of the brain's system for bodily awareness, this is a plausible neurobiological explanation of how Paul's ecstatic experience of ascending to Heaven arose from his brain.  

In principle, we could find experimental support for this by doing brain imaging studies of people having ecstatic experiences comparable to Paul's.  And yet, in this reliance on brain imaging research, we should always keep in mind, as I have argued in previous posts, that brain imaging is not mind reading.  For example, while fMRI detects blood flow in the brain, it's a matter of interpretation as to what that reveals about the structure and functioning of the brain.  Moreover, none of this research gives us direct access to the subjective consciousness of the people we are studying: ultimately, scientific observers must rely on the patients' verbal reports of what they are thinking and feeling.  Neurologists like Picard face the same problem: when they electrically stimulate some part of a patient's brain, they cannot know what is happening in the patient's mind until the patient reports what he thinks is happening in his mind.

But then what would be the neurobiological explanation for the ineffability of Paul's experience--his confusion about how or even whether he could describe his experience?  This is a general problem for the scientific study of religion because so much of religious experience is reported as indescribable in ordinary language, and this creates the suspicion that the object of such ineffable experience is not real.

As with her answer to the first question, Shantz's answer to this question is speculative, and yet plausible so far as it is grounded in present neurobiological knowledge of how some brain activity in the right hemisphere can be ineffable when it is cut off from the language centers in the left hemisphere (101-108).

The primary language centers of the brain are all in the left hemisphere--Broca's area, Wernicke's area, the angular gyrus, and the primary auditory cortex.  And yet the right hemisphere does seem to process the emotional nuances of language.

Brain imaging studies of people during altered states of consciousness (such as that induced by hallucinogenic drugs, meditation, and speaking in tongues) show brain activity dominated by the right hemisphere rather than the left hemisphere.  We can infer, therefore, that if mystical experiences like Paul's ascent to Heaven arise primarily from the right hemisphere of the brain, the language processing centers in the left hemisphere might struggle to express these experiences in clear language.  

But then since we have no direct access to the mind of Paul or any other mystic, or any other human being for that matter, we must rely on their verbal or written reports of their mystical experiences.  And so, to the extent that mystical experiences are truly ineffable, we cannot understand what they are--unless, of course, we have mystical experiences of our own.


So what does all of this tell us about the truth or falsity of religious claims, or whether God--or any supernatural being--really exists?

The scientists studying the neurobiology of religious experience often report that people who have had an ecstatic experience say that it was "infinitely more real" than any other experience in their life.  Does that intense feeling of the reality of the supernatural object of their experience prove the real existence of the supernatural?  Or could this subjective imagination of the reality of the supernatural be delusional?  After all, even religious believers often dismiss the religious experiences of people in different religious traditions as illusions.  For example, most religious believers who are not Mormons will doubt whether Joseph Smith really did meet the Angel Moroni, who delivered to him the golden plates on which was written the Book of Mormon.  And, of course, skeptics or atheists do not see religious experiences as testifying to the truth of religious claims about the supernatural.

But still it's hard to see how we could ever prove that there has never been a true revelation of the supernatural through religious experience.  And that's why the Reason/Revelation debate remains unresolvable.

I see the neurobiology of religious belief as evidence for there being a natural desire for religious experience rooted in the evolved nature of the brain.  Some of the evolutionary psychologists of religion (like Justin Barrett) will see this as showing that God guided natural human evolution so that the human brain would be naturally inclined to belief in God.  Others will see this natural evolution of religious belief as an evolved propensity of the human brain to delusional belief in God.  As far as I can see, evolutionary neurobiology is open to either interpretation.

As I have argued in some previous posts, what we see here is the natural emergence of the soul in the brain.  Some religious believers will say that the creation of the human soul was a supernatural miracle by God acting outside the natural order of evolution.  But some theistic evolutionists will say that God chose to use the natural evolution of the brain so that the soul could emerge in the brain.


Gschwind, Markus, and Fabienne Picard. 2016. "Ecstatic Epileptic Seizures: A Glimpse into the Multiple Roles of the Insula." Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 10:21.

Newberg, Andrew. 2018. Neurotheology: How Science Can Enlighten Us About Spirituality. New York: Columbia University Press.

Picard, Fabienne. 2023. "Ecstatic or Mystical Experience through Epilepsy." Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 35 (9): 1372-1381.

Schweitzer, Albert. 1931. The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle. New York: Henry Holt.

Shantz, Colleen. 2009.  Paul in Ecstasy: The Neurobiology of the Apostle's Life and Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press.